(full release from SAHC)
Asheville-based nonprofit the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy has purchased 225 acres to the west of Highway 19-E in the Spear Community of Avery County. The property includes the double-summit of Spear Tops Mountain.
Once known as the “Falls at Hawks Crossing,” the property came to the attention of local officials when a developer from Florida purchased it and sought to sell high-end lots. The road constructed to the top of the mountain had grades that exceeded the maximum allowable under the Avery County ordinance. County commissioners denied a variance for the road and the developers re-designed the community, subdividing the property in a manner that fell outside the ordinance. Since that time, the ordinance has been re-written, largely because of this turn of events.
The problems with the road coincided with a decline in the sales of high-end real estate. “It used to be that you could put in a road and sell house lots sight-unseen to people from other states,” said Michelle Pugliese, Land Protection Director at SAHC. “But those days came to an end, at least temporarily, in 2008.” No lots were sold in the “Falls at Hawks Crossing” subdivision.
Jay Leutze, a Trustee with SAHC, has long been interested in protecting the property. “Folks in Avery County love Spear Tops. It really broke a lot of hearts when we all learned that there were going to be vacation homes perched on top of this iconic peak in what we call the Greater Roan Highlands Landscape.” In addition to its beauty, the property hosts an array of important conservation features. “The waterfall and spray cliffs are exceptional,” Leutze added. “It's very unusual that we get a chance to save a mountain with this many special plant communities. Botanists with the state have known about this site for a long time, and we're excited that we were able to buy it and end the threat of development.”
Saving the property was a challenge. Leutze explained that funding for new conservation projects has nearly disappeared at the state level. “During the budget crisis, the [North Carolina] General Assembly and the governor have reduced the amount of funds available for purchasing land. That's too bad, because we have a very small window left for protecting critical properties, and right now the prices have finally come down from the inflated values of recent years.”
When it became clear the development plan on the mountain was failing, SAHC approached the lender in an effort to accomplish a short sale. The land trust then raised money to enter an auction to purchase the promissory note. “There was competition for the note,” Pugliese explained. “That drove up the price and made this project very difficult to complete.” Once SAHC purchased the note, they then had to foreclose to take title, just as a bank would have had to. “We were nervous that there might be someone out there who would bid on the property on the courthouse steps,” Pugliese said.
When no one else bid on the property, SAHC took title. This is the ninth distressed property the land trust has acquired, according to Leutze. “We own the property,” Leutze said. “We have to pay the unpaid back-taxes that had accumulated, but we're hopeful we can raise the money to do that. People really love this mountain and we are getting a lot of support.”
Eventually the land trust may transfer the property to the state of North Carolina as part of the Yellow Mountain State Natural Area. “The state has been an outstanding partner in helping to evaluate which properties to prioritize for protection,” according to Pugliese. “In these lean times, we want to be very strategic about reducing costs of management by buying only the tracts that fit into an overall conservation vision for the landscape.”
Leutze says people should watch the land trust's website for information about a guided hike on the property in the spring ( www.appalachian.org). “As with every property we purchase we will write a management plan to protect the fragile conservation features first. After that we can figure out the best way to share the property with the public. We have some safety concerns with the road that we'll have to take into account.”
Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy was established in 1974 to help protect the route of the Appalachian Trail through the Roan Highlands. Since that time, the organization has protected land using conservation easements and land purchases from Cataloochee Ranch on the edge of the Smokies, to tracts at Mount Mitchell State Park, to lands throughout the Roan Highlands in North Carolina and in east Tennessee. To date, the organization has protected 49,000 acres of land.